As the Indian economy chalks up perhaps the highest (6-8 percent) GDP (gross domestic product) year-on-year growth rates worldwide, a familiar lament of Indian industry — and particularly of HRD (human resource development) managers within industry — is being voiced at incrementally higher decibel levels: “India doesn’t have an unemployment problem, it has a problem of millions of unemployables.” Or words to that effect.

And gradually — perhaps too gradually — there’s a dawning awareness within the nation’s educationists, social scientists, economists, planners and business leaders, even if not politicians as yet, that the root cause of the great and growing mismatch between the needs of the fast-track Indian economy and the nation’s reportedly 40 million registered unemployed is the inadequate, obsolete education received by them. Even as purblind officials in the Union ministry of human resource development continue to beat the drum of rising literacy statistics, within corporate India there is a panicky realisation that poor quality, outdated undergraduate education in particular dispensed by the nation’s institutions of higher education, has created a severe shortage of trained personnel and has driven in-company training costs sky-high.

“Except perhaps for commerce, the undergraduate curriculums of colleges in India are almost totally irrelevant to the needs of Indian industry. Sociology and political science graduates regard themselves lucky if they land jobs selling soaps and toiletries. Once upon a time we used to hire chemistry graduates but our experience has been that with appropriate in-house training, non-graduate trainees are better than B.Sc and M.Sc degree holders. While commerce undergrad curriculums tend to be better, most commerce degree holders are at best qualified to become accounts clerks. This is because very few graduates of Indian colleges are trained to link the theory they learn with the practical and working aspects of their subjects.

“Therefore we are obliged to rigorously test job applicants to determine their IQs and street smartness rather than trust their degree qualifications. Then we train them, creating our own B.Scs and re-teaching our employees mechanical and chemical engineering,” says V.V. Bhat, a science and commerce graduate of Pune University who also acquired an engineering degree while in the Indian Army (1964-70) prior to signing up with Reliance Industries in 1982. Since then Bhat has risen to the position of president (management services and human resources) of the Reliance Group, India’s largest private sector corporate in terms of annual sales revenue (Rs.65,000 crore in 2002-03).

Such dissatisfaction with the quality of graduates produced by the great majority of India’s 305 universities and 14,000 colleges which inject an estimated three million degree holders into the blood-stream of the Indian economy every year, is widespread, even if insufficiently articulated. Indeed major corporates such as Tata Consultancy, Wipro, Infosys, Hindustan Lever, Reliance, ITC etc run virtual in-house universities to train college graduates who should require minimal induction or familiarisation training before becoming productive.

Independent educationists who monitor institutions of higher learning tend to endorse the dominant opinion within Indian industry that undergrad curriculums in particular are neither progressive nor relevant. “Islands of academic excellence such as the IIMs, IITs, the new National Law Schools and some medical colleges apart, it would be fair to say that college curriculums in India are outmoded and in many ways irrelevant. I find it very difficult to understand why undergraduate students studying economics as part of the journalism course of Delhi University should learn the distinction between Marshalian and Walrasian demand curves or why they should have to master the art of drawing complex indifference curves to tease out income and substitution effects. Moreover I have interviewed several economics postgraduates with Master’s degrees from Indian universities who are able to solve equations and rattle off formulae. But most of them were ignorant about adult illiteracy, infant mortality and net birth rates. Neither were they aware of where they can find such data. I blame college and university teachers for perpetuating a horrible examination and curriculum revision system. Their indifference to these vitally important academic matters is disgraceful,” says Dr. A.K. Shiva Kumar, a Delh-based adviser to UNESCO and visiting professor of economics at Harvard University.

Fortunately the issue of obsolete higher — particularly undergraduate — education is increasingly being acknowledged and addressed by a small but growing minority of hands-on academics. “The fundamental problem of undergraduate education in India is that syllabuses are prescribed by affiliating universities, curriculums are devised by colleges and examinations are conducted by universities. This makes quality control very difficult because syllabi are revised very infrequently and are expected to be ably taught by college faculties after which evaluation again at the university level is impersonal and erratic. This divisive system leaves very little room for college managements to innovate or step out of line in the pursuit of excellence though at this college among some others, we enrich the syllabi by running parallel honours or diploma programmes,” says Fr. Ambrose Pinto, S.J, a political science alumnus of Mangalore University and currently the frank and forthright principal of Bangalore’s highly-rated St. Joseph’s College which offers arts and science education to 2,500 undergrad and 200 postgrad students.

Undoubtedly this asphyxiating stranglehold of universities over affiliated colleges discourages the latter from devising ways and means to set their own standards of excellence. Moreover the dominance of universities is pernicious because it’s hardly an official secret that affiliating universities are the happy hunting grounds of this nation’s unique Midas-in-reverse politicians — particularly state-level politicos — who brazenly interfere with varsity administration and faculty appointments and care little about plummeting standards of higher education.

It’s an indicator of the power of government and university administrators that despite the on-the-ground reality that several of India’s front-rank colleges such as St. Joseph’s, Bangalore, St. Xavier’s, Mumbai, St. Stephen’s, Delhi, Presidency, Kolkota among others, enjoy a much better academic reputation than their parent affiliating universities, they cannot transform themselves into autonomous degree-awarding institutions. After all which HRD manager would argue that a Delhi University degree is preferable to a St. Stephen’s degree or that a Bangalore University degree is superior to a St. Joseph’s graduation certificate? A closer examination of the higher education schema devised by control-freak educrats in New Delhi and the state capitals indicates that higher education in India is a closed system, offering little room for the exercise of collegiate autonomy to which mandarins of the UGC (University Grants Commission, Delhi) and NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) pay generous lip service.

For one, even the country’s most highly-rated colleges including St. Joseph’s, St Xavier’s, St. Stephen’s and Presidency are pathetically dependent upon their state governments for paying faculty salaries. This in turn provides leverage for state governments to decree absurdly low tuition fees, which in keeping with the time-honoured tradition of doling out non-merit subsidies to the middle class, have been frozen for decades and are probably the lowest in the world. In turn this makes college managements abjectly dependent upon UGC for capital expenditure grants.

Moreover even if a college were to make a unilateral declaration of independence and set its own syllabus and fee structure, it is likely to suffer disaffiliation from the parent university which would mean that its graduates would be ineligible for academic, government and defence services employment. Little wonder even those colleges which have good academic reputations in their own right are subservient to numerous masters and unable to devise independent, contemporary syllabuses and curriculums.

Quite obviously such a close-ended higher education system cannot be sustained in this era of economic liberalisation and rapidly crystallising globalisation. Taking a cue from the large number of autonomous colleges and universities in the US which attract high-fee paying students from around the world — and particularly from the Indian subcontinent (Indian students constitute the largest foreign scholastic minority in the US) — several private universities which devise independent, industry-friendly syllabuses and charge cost-plus tuition fees, have sprung up across the country, some in collaboration with institutions of higher education abroad (see cover story). Among them: the Manipal Academy of Higher Education; the Delhi-based Amity Universe and the Bangalore-based Jain Group of Institutions.

Simultaneously several of the more reputable government-aided colleges have taken the initiative of introducing parallel ‘honours courses’ which transcend prescribed syllabi, enabling undergrad students to acquire readily marketable skill-sets or specialisations through parallel additional study. This permits a college to award its own distinctive diploma which carries considerable weight for graduate students in the employment marketplace.

These initiatives, as much as increasingly vocal criticism of the under-developed skill-sets and/or problem-solving abilities of college and university graduates have forced the Union ministry of human resource development and its affiliated handmaiden — UGC (and its subsidiary NAAC) — to somewhat belatedly address the issue of obsolete syllabuses. According to Dr. V.N. Rajasekharan Pillai former director of NAAC and currently vice chairman of UGC, the commission has recently constituted several expert committees which study and encourage revision of college and university syllabuses on a “regular basis”. According to Pillai, all institutions of higher education have been instructed to revise their curricula at least once every five years with the help of NAAC, if necessary.

“In UGC we are sensitive to criticism about the relevance of syllabuses in institutions of higher education. Therefore we have initiated skills enhancing certificate and diploma courses which can be taken by students already enrolled in bachelor degree programmes. In addition the commission has constituted special committees to research the humanities, social sciences, arts and languages and strengthen teaching programmes in these areas. Quite obviously sudden destructuring of existing curriculums is not possible, but we are very conscious of the need to expand and enrich existing curricula. To this end we have made a budgetary provision of Rs.25 crore in fiscal 2002-03 for starting relevance enhancing courses in several colleges across the country,” says Pillai.

But though officialdom and the powerful educracy in New Delhi seem to have become aware of the obsolescence of undergrad education, the fundamental rigidities of the tertiary education system remain unaddressed. Essentially they are date-expired curriculums, the rote learning tradition and faculty recruitment and promotions on considerations other than merit.

Student Voices

I like the curriculum and it is definitely relevant. However I would want the college to bring psychologists and psychiatrists as visiting faculty. More project work should be included, such as visits to mental hospitals, counselling and conducting experiments in the second year instead of only in third year — Afshan Shirazi, third year psychology student of Mithibai College of Arts, Mumbai

The English honours curriculum is fairly comprehensive and covers a range of authors, poets and dramatists, in addition to introducing students to Third-World and Indian literature. But while it’s comprehensive, it has the drawback of giving students only an introduction to different literatures, without developing any one area in depth — Sabita Ravi, third year English honours student, Lady Shriram College, Delhi

I don’t believe our economics curriculum is at all contemporary. Some of the topics taught in Indian economics in the old syllabus as well as the new are totally irrelevant. I wish we could have interesting debates on topics like globalisation and liberalisation; in fact we would also like to learn and debate the economic backlash of the recent Iraq war. But sadly our undergraduate curriculum gives us no scope to deal with contemporary topics — Ritwik Banerjee, second year, economics student, Presidency College, Kolkata

The exam-oriented curriculum is heavy and requires us to cram 800 pages within a semester. The syllabus has to be streamlined and made more flexible. There is no scope for individual thinking. Also, we should have the freedom to choose the species of the animal kingdom for dissection instead of the decision being made for us — Manasi Vishwanathan, first year zoology student, Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai

And the brunt of the criticism rooted in these usually glossed over factors is borne by liberal arts students and faculty. Indeed there is widespread contempt within Indian industry and in society generally for the humanities and liberal arts education. The dominant opinion is that liberal arts subjects such as English literature, history, sociology and economics don’t equip students for industry and the job market. Liberal arts education is “condescendingly tolerated rather than enthusiastically embraced”, says Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a former Harvard don and currently the perspicacious professor of philosophy, law and governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

In Mehta’s opinion — brilliantly argued in a contribution written for Education-World (December 2003) — “debates over curriculum have concentrated more on the content of education than upon its purpose: the provision of a general intellectual training”. “The central thrust of liberal (arts) education ought to be the cultivation of critical intelligence, an ability to form opinions based on sound evidence, rigorous reasoning and the ability to articulate,” he advises. Far from being irrelevant, these skills — and by extension liberal arts education — are urgently required by Indian industry and society in general.

But while the dominant opinion within Indian academia and industry is that higher education — particularly college — curriculums tend to be archaic, this viewpoint is not unanimous. There are some academic heavyweights who believe that the fault is not as much in the syllabuses prescribed but as in the way they are transformed into curricula by inept college managements and faculties. “In economics which I teach, the syllabus is very contemporary and very much on a par with whatever is being taught at the undergraduate level in the United States or Britain. The undergraduate arts stream curricula provided by this college are coveted because of our tradition of translating syllabuses into comprehensive and enriched curriculums, which are superior to the model curriculum prescribed by UGC. Our graduates fit in easily into front-rank foreign universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Cornell and the London School of Economics. This wouldn’t be possible if our undergraduate education was obsolete,” says Dr. Amitava Chatterjee professor of economics and principal of Kolkata’s highly-rated Presidency College (est.1817).

Such satisfaction with undergrad syllabi and curriculums is rare within Indian academia, particularly among those familiar with science education. According to Dr. N. Mukunda a maths alumnus of St. Stephen’s Delhi and the University of Rochester and currently honorary research professor of mathematical physics at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (rated among the top 20 science research institutions worldwide) where he taught maths and physics for almost three decades (1972-2001), undergraduate science education in the great majority of the nation’s colleges and universities is of “very poor quality”.

“There are several fundamental flaws in the manner in which science education is dispensed in the country’s colleges and universities, especially at the under-graduate level. The first of these flaws is that students are denied flexibility in the choice of their study subjects. For example undergraduate science students cannot study biology in most colleges. Secondly the system encourages premature specialisation in the core degree subject which results in weak foundational science education. And thirdly, lab training or experiential science education is grossly neglected with too much emphasis on theoretical learning,” says Mukunda who way back in 1994 chaired a committee constituted by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore (est.1934) which suggested several reforms in science education at the undergrad and Master’s levels. But the recommendations of this expert committee remain “largely unimplemented”.

The general criticism that experiential education in the sciences is woefully deficient is endorsed by Dr. S. Amerjyothy, reader in botany at the Presidency College, Chennai. “The undergraduate botany curriculum is neither contemporary nor application oriented. Currently only one paper tests application skills; the other eight papers are totally theoretical. The consequence is that after graduation a student has to do a Master’s in botany or biochemistry to become employable,” says Amerjyothy, a botany postgrad and Ph D of Madras University with 26 years of teaching experience.

However there are other academics who like Prof.Amitava Chatterjee quoted above, believe that the major infirmity of science education is not so much the obsolescence of college and university syllabuses as the outmoded manner in which science education is delivered. “Our science syllabuses are on a par with those of universities abroad, and even better in some instances. The infirmity is in the teaching and examination systems. The prevailing annual examination system doesn’t compel students to study through the year. It doesn’t grind them sufficiently and they study only as the exams close in, when they cram and regurgitate. In western universities question papers tend to test problem solving skills and that too through the year. There should be continuous testing of students,” opines Dr. G.P. Gupta professor of physics at Lucknow University who has had long teaching stints at Pennsylvania State University (USA) and Liverpool University (UK).

The silver lining is that commerce syllabuses are relatively more concurrent than the other streams, which is a good augury for the fast-growth Indian economy. “Compared to the old days there is a trend towards improving the syllabus and introducing new courses in commerce education,” says Dr. V.B. Tayde principal of Mumbai’s well-regarded Sydenham College of Commerce. “For example in 1997 UGC permitted us to introduce a three year vocational course in foreign trade. Though syllabus revision is at the university rather than college level, it is done in a rational and democratic manner. All the principals of commerce colleges under the university, heads of the boards of studies at the university level and representatives of the university’s academic council have common meetings at which syllabus revisions are discussed and debated. Moreover leaders of industry, banks and insurance companies are often invited,” explains Tayde.

But while undergraduate level commerce education may be relatively more advanced than undergrad liberal arts and science education, there’s no glossing over the reality that most colleges across the country are dispensing date-expired education to the high-potential nine million undergraduate students who repose their faith and trust in them. Quite clearly the ponderous syllabus revision systems of the universities need to be energised to become faster and more responsive, greater academic autonomy has to be conferred upon reputable colleges, and the examination system decentralised.

Unlike most developing nations of the third world, India is gifted with a large and functional higher education system and a talented pool of high quality academics. Thus far the academic community has been marking time, shaping youth for quasi-clerical jobs in government and low-productivity public sector enterprises. Now there’s a new responsibility upon this community to develop syllabi and curriculums for India’s fast-track new economy which is beginning to compete in the emerging global marketplace.

This is a grave and onerous responsibility because the price of failure — low productivity, rising unemployment and spiralling in-company training costs — will prove too heavy for Indian society to bear in the near future.